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The Inevitability of Fragmentation: Division as a Concession to Feudal Realities

Why did European rulers feel the need to divide their territories multiple times throughout history?

Many people have the causality backwards.

The reality was not that division led to fragmentation, but rather that fragmentation led to division.

In the imagined feudal system of later generations, lords could arbitrarily dispose of their territories as if molding clay, even if some concessions were made to reality, like who and where to enfeoff. It was quite subjective, like the game Crusader Kings.

However, real history should be viewed in reverse:

Feudal division was an acknowledgment of the existing political landscape, or the best arrangement made based on the existing political landscape.

The division of territory, subjects, and various political forces was already an established fact. The lord merely had to arrange a proxy for them. If the lord’s arrangements failed to satisfy them, they would find their own suitable proxies and force the lord to recognize them.

Moreover, often rulers did not actually control the lands they “divided.” They simply allocated military and administrative resources to their sons, then sent them to expand territories and power.

The feudal system appeared designed top-down, but was actually built bottom-up.

The most typical case of medieval European division of territory was not the ephemeral Carolingian kings, but the small Christian kingdoms of the Iberian Peninsula. The kingdoms of Galicia, Leon, Castile, and Navarre merged and split for hundreds of years, as if cursed.

The story begins with the first “territory-dividing” king, one of the few in Iberian history to earn the epithet “the Great” – Alfonso III of Asturias (reigned 866-910).

The Kingdom of Asturias was a small Christian kingdom in northwest Iberia, founded to resist Muslim rule to the south. In 866, the 15-year-old Alfonso III was crowned king. Over his long 40-year reign, Alfonso III constantly maneuvered with local nobles and Muslim rulers to the south, expanding the kingdom to its historical peak.

However, the problem that came with territorial expansion was unprecedented centrifugal force. Asturias was mountainous, and local nobles had strong regional identities, relying on mountain castles for self-rule. Noble privileges, traditions, and interests differed and conflicted – eastern border nobles cared about wars with the Muslims, while Galician nobles on the west focused on the pilgrimage road to Santiago and maritime security. Nobles from different regions had completely opposite views on taxation and resource allocation.

The direct consequence of political fragmentation was that local forces sought their own proxies.

Alfonso III’s long 40-year reign could not bridge this fragmentation. His sons rebelled in his old age, Alfonso captured his eldest son Garcia, but to no avail. Nobles supporting Garcia continued the rebellion until Alfonso compromised. He appointed his three sons to rule Leon, Galicia, and Asturias, and spent his last years in a monastery. After Alfonso III died, the Kingdom of Asturias split into three.

It is worth noting that like most “divisions” under feudalism, the independent kingdoms still maintained nominal unity – they honored the Kingdom of Leon as their overlord, providing legitimacy for future reunifications. But no matter the facade of unity or division, the core fragmentation of local nobles never changed. Thus, as long as local nobles were dissatisfied enough, they could force the monarch to divide the realm, or prop up a prince who could represent their interests.

In 966, Galician nobles poisoned King Sancho I of Leon and Galicia. Sancho’s son Ramiro succeeded him, but nobles rebelled again, propping up Ramiro’s cousin as King of Galicia, opposing Leon. This shows that given the existing political fragmentation, even if the monarch was unwilling to actively divide the realm, local forces would “help” complete the division.

Thus, some intelligent monarchs realized that rather than passively accept the results of division, it was better to proactively make arrangements following reality. In 1004, King Sancho III of Pamplona, at the height of his realm, divided his kingdom between his three sons in his will. In 1063, King Ferdinand I of Leon (also “the Great”) divided his realm between three sons. Ferdinand had tried to weaken local nobles and consolidate the realm, but still chose to divide upon his death, and had his sons trained in different regions. Ferdinand’s son Alfonso VI reunited the three kingdoms through war and intrigue, but did not divide the realm upon his death. However, the County of Portugal he had granted became an independent kingdom, and after a few generations Leon and Castile split again…

The merging and splitting of the Iberian kingdoms only ended around 1640, when the Portuguese nobility proclaimed the Duke of Braganza as their new king, ending the union with Spain and settling the political landscape of Iberia to the present day.

The long political reforms and integration of regional administration from the late medieval period to the early modern period (1250-1800) erased the possibility of Iberian monarchs dividing their realms upon succession (a possibility that existed until the War of Spanish Succession in 1701). From the 19th century onwards, discontent among local forces continued under the guise of nationalism.

“Dividing the realm” is actually a rather presentist way of describing it. To medieval rulers, they were merely selecting necessary proxies for their territories. Even if they did not choose their own sons, local forces would prop up other relatives or nobles, forming independent kingdoms. If they appointed bureaucrats, those officials would have difficulty getting recognized, or have trouble preventing themselves from becoming de facto kings – given that, it was better to directly enfeoff their sons.

After the “division,” the state did not theoretically dissolve – the nominal center of power still existed, whether the King of Leon, Holy Roman Emperor, Grand Duke of Kiev, Mongol Khan, or King of Guge. “Fragmentation” was just a conclusion drawn by later historians who took division as a defining event. To contemporaries, the nominal unity and actual division did not fundamentally change before or after division.

Unlike a bureaucratic system, the feudal system was not fundamentally appointments flowing down from the supreme ruler. “Appointments” in a feudal system were actually compromises and acknowledgements of the status quo. What feudal lords could do was select the most favorable proxies within their capability, granting titles and nobility to local strongmen, or dispatching relatives to co-govern restless lands.

The Tang dynasty scholar Liu Zongyuan had penetrating insight into this issue, concluding his essay On Fiefs:

“It is not the intent of the saint, but circumstances.”

That one word “circumstances” perfectly expressed the helplessness.

In the 9th century, after the death of Jidni Nimagon of the Arya royal line, the Kingdom of Arya was “divided into three” among the princes. Jidni Nimagon was a Tibetan royal propelled by local nobles, a “parachuted” ruler. The three kingdoms he divided among his sons (Ladakh, Guge, Purang) also lacked clear borders, merging and splitting fluidly. The similar political landscape of Tibet and Iberia reflected the actual nature of feudalism.